Shooting the World’s Most Spectacular Fireworks

This week in Zeferino Professional Lighting we have found interesting the interview of Tobias von dem Borne, DP of new Viktor Jakovleski’s film ‘Brimstone & Glory’.  Largely shot in slow motion with Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras and GoPros. The first shot of the film could be mistaken for a supernova. Actually, it’s a firework exploding in slow motion, evoking the rapturous beauty and intoxicating power of the death of a star.

Jakovleski’s mesmerizing documentary captures the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, a town that is said to produce 80 percent of the fireworks for the entire country. Every year, 100,000 people descend upon Tultepec to celebrate San Juan de Dios, patron saint of firework makers. The nine-day festival is a raucous homage to the ephemeral beauty of fireworks and the many dangers associated with the craft. (In 2016, 32 people died in a fireworks market explosion in Tultepec.) Together with Jakovleski, cinematographer Tobias von dem Borne traveled to Tultepec for three consecutive years to embed within the festival. His camera bears witness to the electrifying experience of playing with fire, which for residents of this town is a way of life.



NFS: Did you start filming the documentary the first time you visited the pyrotechnic festival?


Yes. But the interesting thing was that we actually started filming in a very broad sense. Victor always loved the idea of stumbling into a world we don’t really understand. I think we wanted to keep it fresh—not do too much research. We just wanted to find out about the atmosphere there and the structure of the little town. But we didn’t know too much regarding how the structure of the film could be, and who would be the main characters. “This was the main conversation: ‘How can we approach something we haven’t seen before and we don’t really understand?’


NFS: From a standpoint of excitement and discovery, this project seems like a cinematographer’s dream. What kind of conversations did you have about the way you wanted to approach capturing the event?


We watched documentaries—mostly older ones, and mostly shot on 16mm. These were documentaries where you encounter a fresh and foreign environment which is not really well known by the people who are filming. Of course, we watched Werner Herzog documentaries, but also Les Blank.

The idea was to do long shots, traveling shots, and moving shots, where you really have the feeling that you’re actually trying to make your way through something you don’t know yet.  “We lost some GoPro cameras because people ran away with them. One GoPro camera was blown up.”


NFS: Had you ever shot anything at all like this before?


No! For Victor, there were two things that were really important: this encounter—this stumbling into this place, and the inner experience of watching the movie. We shot fireworks as cosmic experiences. They happen very fast in front of the camera, so we shot in really slow motion. Doing that for a documentary was something I wouldn’t ever have thought of. Usually, a documentary is, for me, about the place and about the characters. But I never had the idea that this “cosmic experience” could work for a documentary. it gives you time to just sit there and watch, and not to think too much. It’s just about letting it happen.



NFS: How did you approach capturing the slow motion? I read it was 1500 frames per second.


Yes, that’s true. We asked ourselves, “How can we be there inside the fireworks? Can we still shoot 1500 frames per second with all the crazy antics of the festival? ”  We got in touch with a company called Vison Research. They manufacture cameras for medical research where you need slow-motion photography to capture very fact processes and break them down. They have built a couple of cameras that are used in the film industry. So We asked them if they could lend us the camera. So that’s what we used: a Miro on a stick. There’s a complicated workflow as soon as you hit the record button. Basically, you’re recording two seconds in normal time, and then you show it in 1500 frames. It becomes 30 seconds or about a minute.



NFS: Did you encounter a specific visual storytelling challenge?


I think the most interesting part was definitely to break down the Night of the Bulls [a feature of the festival involving large, lit-up bulls] into images—how to find our way through it following a character, and finding a narrative line within all of this madness. We shot over the course of three years. The question was always, “How can you bring all of these events together, and also bring together the different perspective of the characters? ” The first year, we just basically tried to cover whatever we found interesting. From year to year, it grew more into a perspective. Do we concentrate on the guys who are building the bull? Or do we concentrate on the kids? Do we concentrate on Chincolas, who was this guy climbing the castle and who also has a voiceover narrative line in the film? That was tricky. Why were we shooting?.


NFS: What did it feel like to be in the heart of all of that action?


Actually, in the beginning—the first year—it felt horrifying, in a way. It was really interesting and it had a kind of seductive appeal to it. You would be drawn to the fire, but at the same time really scared. For us, it was completely new. You can get really hurt if you get hit by one of [the fireworks], even if you’re far away from them, because they are really speedy and really fast. We were full of adrenaline. I hope the audience feels a bit like this.



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